“I am not exaggerating when I say that to a true collector the acquisition of an old book is its rebirth” —Walter Benjamin, Illuminations 61
[I know this is long, but a few people have told me they missed my longer posts, so this is for them]
I might as well confess: I am bibliophile. And I blame the acquisition of this condition on a little essay I read when I was 23 by Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting.” Sure my father collected rare antique editions of books, and some of my earliest memories are of going to antique dealers and auctions and watching while he bid on books. I recall in fact that he had a book in his library that was over 400 years old! But despite all those Saturdays trudging out to dealers, I never fully understood the fascination of collecting old books. I remember thinking that most people would much rather have new editions of a book than an old one. I mean aren’t new things always better than old things?
I gained more appreciation as time went by. On a rainy weekend, I might wander into my dad’s library and peruse these books. I was always scared to touch them because some of them were so delicate I thought I might destroy them. But I would love reading the inscriptions of the books, usually given out of love to someone else, and the note marginalia often left in these books revealing the private thoughts of persons who had been dead for perhaps hundreds of years. It felt almost like taking a step into a time machine.
However, I didn’t go from admiring old books to actually collecting them myself until I read Benjamin’s analysis of book collecting. Benjamin, you may recall, is a literary theorist and one of four key members of the Frankfurt school of neomarxist social theory, along with Theodor Adorno. Walter Benjamin died a tragic death as a Jew attempting to flee Nazi Germany and within the last 20 years has developed deep critical currency in academic circles. According to Benjamin, contrary to popular opinion, book collectors don’t collect books in order to read them. They collect books to liberate them: “[O]ne of the finest memories of a collector is the moment when he rescued a book to which he might never have given a thought, much less a wishful look, because he found it lonely and abandoned in the marketplace and bought it to give it its freedom—the way the prince bought a beautiful slave girl in The Arabian Nights. To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves” (64).
By why exactly does a book need to be rescued? Old books need to be rescued mostly because they not only contain history within their pages, but also because they are themselves living objects of history: “Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in … these books” (60, my emphasis) Indeed, their design, art, and craftsmanship all give the book collector the rare ability to see directly into a specific moment in the past. As Anatole France once said, “The only exact knowledge there is, is the knowledge of the date of publication and the format of books.” (qtd. In Benjamin 60). Specific publishing practices possible only at a specific moment in time merge art and design to unassailably time-stamp a book, fashioning art itself as the “looking glass” into a bygone era. A rare book may be beautiful, but the more beautifully it is designed and constructed, the more rare it is and, therefore, the more exactly we can position it in time. So we collect old books to liberate them. For only by liberating a book can we rescue history.
In this photo, I give you three books from my library of rare and old books. On the bottom of the stack is The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier, a popular 19th-century American poet, which was published in 1890. In the middle of the stack is Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works published circa 1870. And on the top of the stack is one of my oldest books, The Pleasures of Hope with Other Poems, by Thomas Campbell, published almost 200 years ago in 1815. I chose these three books for this photo, not because they are the oldest or rarest in my library, but because all three editions possess some of most beautiful and ornate design/art I’ve come across. They are art no less than the poetry they carry inside them.
*** Read below ONLY if you want to know the publishing details of these books***
(1) The Poetical Works of John Greenleaf Whittier with Life, Notes, Index Etc. published by Frederick Warne & Co in London 1891. It comes with a portrait engraving and original illustrations. Original red/burgundy cloth decorated with gilt and etchings.
(2) Sir Walter Scott’s Poetical Works published by Gall & Inglis in both Edinburgh and London in 1870. It comes complete with 8 engravings on steel and a brief biography of Scott. Original red/burgundy cloth is heavily decorated with, gilt, etching, & terracotta. Yapp Binding. With gilded edges and a sunken golden frame encasing an intaglio image of flowers and four raised vignettes of Shakespeare, fellow Scottish poet Robert Burns and two Scottish castles. Spine is heavily illustrated with gilt and terracotta.
(3) The Pleasures of Hope and Other Poems published by Longman, Hurst, Rees in London in 1815. With illustrations. Gilded titles and decorative elements on cover and spine. Spine is also heavily illustrated.